Washington's special envoy for Iran says the U.S. administration is looking into the visas of relatives of Iranian officials who are residing in the United States with an eye to possible action to expose hypocrisy within the ranks of Iran's government.
Brian Hook announced the review in a December 11 video in which he said the United States was "working" on the issue, without providing details.
"I can tell you that we are working on it, and while I can't discuss individual cases or internal policy deliberations, you can be sure that we are pursuing all options to pressure the corrupt hypocrites in your government to change their behavior," Hook said in the video, which was posted via the State Department's Persian-language Twitter account.
He said the warning was a response to questions from Iranians who had asked why the United States was not revoking the visas of the relatives of regime officials.
The Trump administration earlier this year won a Supreme Court battle over a travel ban on citizens of Iran and six other countries, four of them with Muslim majorities, that was seen as fulfilling a 2016 campaign pledge to halt flows of some nationals to bolster U.S. security.
The Iranian outcry was swift and sharp, with complaints that Iranians of all walks of life were being unfairly punished for the actions of policies emanating from Tehran.
Relatives of Iranian officials in the United States include the son of Massumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president, who served as a spokeswoman for the Islamic student revolutionaries who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and the daughter of Iran’s parliament speaker, Ali Larijani.
Hook said the presence of the heirs of Iranian officials in the United States, which is routinely branded the "Great Satan" by Iranian hard-liners, exemplified "the hypocrisy of the regime."
"I have to admit, this is another example of the hypocrisy of the regime, while the regime officials chant, 'Death to America,' they send their families to the so-called 'Great Satan' to live and study here, using the resources of the Iranian people," Hook said.
It appears to be an unprecedented step at a time when the U.S. administration is already squeezing Iran through the recent reimposition of tough economic sanctions over Tehran's alleged support for international terrorism, meddling abroad, deception over a disputed nuclear program, and rights abuses at home.
Hossein Alizadeh, a former Iranian diplomat and a researcher at the Peace Research Institute of the University of Tampare, in Finland, told RFE/RL that governments tend to keep academic and student ties separate from political issues and disagreements.
"Countries can break political ties while academic ties and student programs [continue]," Alizadeh said.
But he noted the U.S. decision to end the 1955 Treaty of Amity with Iran as a sign of even further pressing by Washington.
"We’re seeing a new way by the Trump administration that does not have a precedent," Alizadeh said. "As a result, I can envisage that the U.S. could revoke student visas of the relatives of Iranian officials as part of the measures it is taking against Iran."
Thousands of Iranians study in the United States despite the recent travel ban. The United States broke its ties with Iran following the 1979 revolution and the related sacking of the embassy in Tehran and taking of U.S. diplomats as hostages in a crisis that continued for 444 days.
The two countries experienced something of a detente after a multilateral deal to curb Iranian nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions was completed under U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015.
That deal was opposed by many hawks in Iran and the United States. But tensions have been ratcheted up since U.S. President Donald Trump got into office in 2017.
Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord in May and announced a revival of tough sanctions that had been removed as part of the deal.
The United States has said that it is seeking to change Iran's "malign behavior," including its missile program and support for proxy groups in the region.
NBC News reported on December 3 that the families of Americans imprisoned in Iran have called on the Trump administration to deny visas to children of senior Iranian officials.
Those families have reportedly provided the administration and several lawmakers with a list of Iranian nationals in the United States who are believed to be the children or relatives of senior Iranian officials, the report said.
At least four Americans are currently in jail in Iran on charges of espionage that are dismissed by their families and friends.
They include Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University student who was reportedly conducting research on the late Qajar dynasty when he was arrested in 2017.
Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president on women and family affairs, whose son has studied in California, reportedly said in a recent interview that studying in the United States was not a "confirmation of America’s hegemony."
"Many studied in the U.S., which does not necessarily mean support for U.S. policies," Ebtekar said in an interview with the semiofficial ISNA news agency published in November. "Young people's views may not be fully in line with their parents."